Family Portrait of a Broken Promise

in 6th Abu Dhabi Film Festival

by Nando Salvá

Winner of the FIPRESCI Jury Prize at this year’s festival, A World Not Ours is a fascinating blend of a personal memoir and a reading of the Palestinian situation; this documentary takes its title from a book by Ghassan Kanafani, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine assassinated by the Israelis in 1972. In his first feature film, Mahdi Fleifel portrays three generations in exile in the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Helweh (Lebanon), a place which was hastily constructed in 1948 within an area of one square kilometer. Here there are currently about 70,000 refugees who are monitored by the Lebanese army and denied the right to work.

Born in Dubai, Fleifel spent two years in the camp in the 1980s before settling with his family in Denmark. For years, he’s been returning periodically to the camp and keeping a video diary of his experiences there. He inherited an obsession for filming from his father, so A World Not Ours includes an amazing amount of film and video footage shot over three decades. By virtue of his particular background, Fleifel has been able to approach with both intimacy and objectivity a place that is magical for him, but also, as portrayed here, full of frustration, regret and sorrow.

To achieve such a unique approach, the director recounts his family’s experience in Ain el-Helweh as a reflection of the camp’s history. In particular, he focuses on the fate of three individuals. First, there is his grandfather, who personifies the tragedy of his generation: he moved as a boy after his family’s expulsion from Palestine and never left the camp because, at the age of 82 by the time of filming, he still doesn’t want to risk his right to return home. Then there is his half-brother, Said (who is actually his grandfather’s half-brother) who was unable to come to terms with his heroic brother’s death, and instead tries to mask failure and disappointment under the guise of an idiot.

But the most interesting by far among these characters is Bassam Taha, also known as Abu Iyad (after the former deputy chief and head of intelligence for the PLO), a good friend of Fleifel and a longtime member of Fatah. His disillusionment with the situation of Palestinian refugees and the unfulfilled, lifelong promise of return has left him broken and more furious with his own leadership than with the enemy. He also hates Ain el-Helweh itself: the suicide bombers, he argues, used Israel as an excuse, because all they really wanted was to get out of the camp. “We should all be massacred!” he exclaims, and he denounces the Palestinian authorities as thieves. So Bassam represents a very accurate portrait of the perception that the failure of Palestinian and Arab nationalism has deepened. His own father, a former Fatah officer, even calls Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a “son of a bitch.” Anger and contempt consume this man, who has sacrificed everything for the Palestinian cause and, in exchange, has no future, no work and no education.

But despite Bassam’s feelings and his need to escape Ain el-Helweh, A World Not Ours makes it clear that the camp is not just a product and a reminder of imperialist insanity, the endemic problems of many Arab regimes, and the failure of nationalism and the various political forces at work in the Palestinian camps; it is also a place to call home. By avoiding self-pity, conscious ideological agendas or easy solutions, the film achieves a winning mix of humor, melancholy and striking intelligence. Fleifel reinforces and strengthens the collective memory of his family and friends and uses his art to keep them visible. Because for them, forgetting would mean ceasing to exist.

Edited by Lesley Chow


in 6th Abu Dhabi Film Festival